Skip to main content
Community Contribution

Using Systematic, Digital Data Collection to Drive Decision Making in Laos

Jun 18, 2024
Caroline Allen, ACDI/VOCA

Global development donors are increasingly seeking greater accountability from implementers in the form of data that proves who has been trained, what they were trained on, and how the target population benefited from the training. Provision of such information is near to impossible without systems in place that allow for data collection traceability. At the same time, traceability systems must be affordable, easy to use, and preferably include multiple functions based on staff and project needs. In the case of USAID Laos Microenterprise, a six-year activity led by ACDI/VOCA, using QR codes and mobile phones proved to be the most reliable, efficient way to capture data that could be analyzed for decision making. 

USAID Laos Microenterprise, which began in 2018, operates in the northern province of Xiengkhouang, where most households rely on agriculture as their main source of income. Chief of Party Sophie Walker realized early on that a big challenge in project implementation and management would be consistent, reliable access to data to inform project decision making. Culturally, many Laotians prefer verbal communication rather than written, which can pose a challenge to monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems. Given this preference, Walker knew it would be important to leverage simple to use, digital processes for the systematic collection of data, without requiring a large level of effort from project staff.

Collecting Data through QR Codes

In practice, the team used QR codes on lanyards to capture data for both project implementation and management. They developed simple forms, which they made accessible on mobile phones and tablets. To register, participants scanned the QR code and completed the form with their demographic information. Staff and accompanying government officials also had their own QR codes. Event organizers then selected the form, the event, scanned their QR code, scanned participant‘s QR code, and completed the form. The content was transmitted to the cloud via data or Wi-Fi and saved in the project’s database.  

On the project implementation side, participants had to only select the event and scan their QR code. The team tracked who attended trainings, which sessions, and even who trained them. On the project management side, QR codes allowed the team to digitally track staff travel, meals, incidental expenses, fuel consumption, and maintenance needs of motorbikes. They could also track when Government of Laos representatives participated in events and needed to receive Daily Subsistence Allowance payments, which the team transferred directly into a bank account every week. 

For the team, this new system significantly reduced the paperwork required, which many were not used to doing. Most importantly, now they had accurate data on who joined an activity, where and when it took place, and what they learned.

Putting the Data to Use

So, what did the team do with the information collected? When project staff went to conduct their annual survey of participants, the M&E team could tailor the questions to check what participants learned against the relevant training sessions they completed. When overall results fell below expectations, the team revised the tool or training module and later checked the participants’ responses to see if they improved. When the results of one trainer were lower than others, either in a specific area or more generally, the trainer was re-trained, often by one of the trainers who excelled in this area. 

Before any of this could take place, the team first had to test the numeracy skills of the population. While some materials could be picture-based to support lower reading abilities, the same could not be done for materials requiring basic math like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. However, most participants passed a simple math test, meaning the training could proceed as planned. 

How the Data Improved Program Impact

When the project started in Laos, other international NGOs informed ACDI/VOCA that 30 percent female attendance at trainings was the norm. A key outcome from the data collection was the finding that women’s training attendance was reduced by 20 percent or more if held after 3:00 p.m. As a result, USAID Laos Microenterprise shifted all trainings to the mornings so that more women could attend, boosting women's attendance rates to 52 percent. At the same time, the project moved the training location to within villages, rather than asking women to travel far, which also improved attendance rates.

One of the goals of Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting is to make data-driven decisions to improve program performance. In this regard, USAID Laos Microenterprise found a way to not only collect and analyze the data, but also to apply it immediately to make trainings more effective. By tailoring training to the needs, interests, learning preferences, and absorptive capacity of rural microenterprises, the project developed tools that participants liked and understood, resulting in 97 percent of farmers adopting at least one new business skill. Approximately 9,300 farmers and small businesses—representing 82 percent of all project participants—were still using these tools up to three years after their initial training.

About the authors
Caroline Allen, Associate Director of Technical Learning at ACDI/VOCA

Caroline serves harmonizes learning and tool development across ACDI/VOCA’s Technical Learning & Application division, including supporting projects with learning activities and processes where applicable. Prior to joining ACDI/VOCA in 2022, Caroline supported programs and organizations applying a market systems development approach with an emphasis on learning tools and methodologies. She played a key role in the creation and implementation of the Market Systems Symposium, a recognized industry learning event. Caroline holds a BS in political science from the College of Charleston and an MA in international development from Tulane University. She is proficient in Spanish.